In 1741 Sir Robert Walpole, defending himself in Parliament against an impeachment proceeding brought by William Pulteney, concluded with the pious hope, drawn from Horace, that he had been guilty of nothing, and need grow pale at no wrongdoing: “Nil conscire sibi nulli pallescere culpae.” Pulteney leapt at once—but to correct the grammar of the Horatian tag: “Your Latin is as bad as your logic: nullA pallescere culpA!” So delicate a textual point—whether Horace had written a dative or an ablative—could not be left unresolved. A guinea was wagered upon it, and the matter was appealed to the clerk of Parliament, who quickly rejected Walpole’s reading in favor of Pulteney’s.1
Such widely shared learning is hard to imagine now, but it would be even harder had it been displayed over the body of any poet other than Horace. The friend of Virgil, Maecenas, and the emperor Augustus, he has commended himself with equal address to generations of Europeans, and to the English in particular. One of Thackeray’s characters was quite content with an education that enabled one to “quote Horace respectably through life.” Nor is it Horace’s words alone that we cherish. We peep and botanize upon his grave, investing him with a kind of posthumous personality. “Fat, beery, beefy Horace” was the image purveyed to schoolchildren, who were encouraged to view him as a kind of superior scout-master, or freshman adviser. His followers seem to agree, archly, even upon the glint in his eye and the likelihood that, given the opportunity, he would have smoked a pipe or a good cigar.
For such admirers Horace has chiefly himself to blame, so amiable is the figure his poems create. Yet the perils of using a poetic text for autobiographical detail are notorious. One of the crasser examples was that of Sir Walter Scott, who took Shakespeare’s plaint that he was “made lame by Fortune’s dearest spite” as gratifying evidence that Shakespeare was crippled, like Scott himself. Such credulous literalism, an extreme form of the “personal heresy,” has largely vanished from English studies, but it continues to bedevil classical ones. Recently, T.P. Wiseman attempted to reconstruct Lucretius’s life from the De Rerum Natura. Apparently persuaded that the poet could write only of matters he had known in a mechanical capacity, Wiseman discovered a Lucretius who was also a part-time pharmacist and bridge builder.2
Such ungenerous estimates of the poetic imagination have been repeatedly protested. For the first time, probably, by Catullus (poem 16), who warned that the poet’s life could be chaste, even though his verses might—and, in fact, should—appeal to a prurient interest (quod pruriat, “that which itches”). Horace (Epistles 1.19) and Martial (11.15) added similar disclaimers, while Ovid characteristically reduced the issue to an epigram: Nec tamen ut testes mes est audire poetas, “Nor is it customary to listen to poets like sworn witnesses” (Amores 3.12). Or in Matthew Prior’s more elaborate version:
To be vexed at a trifle or two that I’ve writ,
Your judgment at once and my pas- sion you wrong;
You take that for fact, which will scarce pass as wit—
Od’s life! Must one swear to the truth of a song?
Sensitive, perhaps, to such warnings, Professor Shackleton Bailey is reasonably circumspect about Horace’s “art of self-presentation.” He confines himself largely to the Satires and Epistles, apparently casual poems sometimes called jointly the Sermones, or “Talks.” In the Satires Horace appears at his most unbuttoned. Here he had the example of a Latin predecessor in the genre, Lucilius, who was of a markedly autobiographical bent. Like Lucilius, Horace combines wise saws with modern instances—an account of a meal, or a walk through Rome, or a description of his farm. Yet despite the authoritative personal details, Horace remains elusive. His customary role is that of the Socratic eiron, the self-deprecating ironist. Some of the Satires are even spoken by others: “Nor is this speech mine” (Nec meus hic sermo est) is his sly disclaimer. Often Horace mocks his own supposed appetites and weaknesses, on one occasion vigorously enough to draw from the usually cautious Shackleton Bailey a remarkable defense: “Horace eschews adultery (and brothels—as a successful man he would have no use for the latter anyway).”
In the Odes, or lyrics, Horace no longer dwells upon the domestic details of the Satires. He has exchanged the “pedestrian Muse” of Lucilius for the full choir of Helicon. The settings are no longer the bustling Forum, or Sacra via, but more numinous landscapes, while the exemplary figures are drawn often from the ampler world of myth. The world of the Odes is clearly more autonomous than the quotidian reality of the Satires or Epistles, to the point that many of the Odes are even meditations upon poetry itself.
One problem in understanding the Odes is our expectation of what lyric verse entails. Definitions of lyric emphasize such qualities as spontaneity and directness, or invoke Milton’s phrase, “simple, sensuous, and passionate.” A worse guide to Horace’s lyric verse would be hard—though not hard enough—to find. In his time the term “lyric” was more formal in its meaning, and referred simply to verses written in the Greek meters that were accompanied by the lyre. Horace adapted to Latin some nineteen Greek lyric meters, with their complex scansion—a technical feat so extraordinary that he was ready to rest upon it his claim to immortality (Carmina 3.30, Epistles 1.19).
He domesticated not only the Greek meters, but the Greek poets as well. The Odes are a virtual anthology of Greek lyric, recapitulating and reshaping it into what may be the single most important legacy to European poetry. The author of the Odes speaks in tones as various as the meters: he may be an amorous Anacreon, a solemn Alcaeus, a practical Archilochus, a prayerful Pindar. So protean are Horace’s shapes as to mock our Procrustean attempt to fit him to some single measure. The recurrent, almost petulant question, “Where is the real Horace?” is likely to remain unanswered. So argues Shackleton Bailey, if I rightly understand him: “Horace invests in his standard themes as a limited partner. If the metaphor may be varied, his eggs are honest eggs, but he does not put too many in one basket, and some of them stay shut away in the refrigerator.”
Horace’s shifting voices can be sensed not only from poem to poem in the collection, but even within individual poems. Will he sing of the glories of the countryside? To be sure, and for some sixty-five lines of the most extravagant sentimentality (Epode 2). But at the poem’s close we discover the whole thing to have been spoken not by Horace, but by a city usurer, a confirmed metropolitan (“Nor is this speech mine”). Or will he write in approved epic style? Certainly—but only in passages that disclaim any epic talent, and declare his “slender Muse” unfit for grand theme.
Nowhere is his elusiveness more marked than in these many odes where he plays the smitten lover who, as Milton put it, “drenched his verse in wine and sang of Glycera and Chloe.” The very number of different girls that he addresses suggests deliberately that none of them engaged his feelings for very long, that all alike were faint fictitious flames. We compare him invidiously with his predecessor Catullus, and we reproach the Odes with “artificiality.” Certainly Horace’s amatory gestures are so exaggerated, and his protestations so perfervid, as to beg us to disbelieve them, and to suppose his only true love affair to have been with the Latin language. “He never thought of marrying,” roundly declared a former chronicler: “he was never in love.”3
Consider his most famous ode, “Integer vitae scelerisque purus,” “Pure of life and free from crime.” After its solemn opening—the first two stanzas are still sometimes sung at funerals—we gradually realize that it is a love poem, and that Horace’s “integrity” consists only in his faithfulness to his mistress Lalage (“babbling one”). Yet that singleminded devotion makes his life a charmed one. As proof, consider the monstrous wolf that he had encountered while he was straying beyond the boundaries of his farm. The wolf fled from him, though he was armored only by Lalage’s name upon his lips—what better proof of his love’s power? In an access of devotion (one that owes something to Catullus’s forty-fifth poem), Horace praises the lover’s invulnerability. Place him anywhere on the globe, in coldest north or hottest south, and still he will be unafraid, still he will sing of sweetly smiling Lalage.
Banish me to a lifeless plain
Where no tree ever is renewed
By summer’s breeze, some latitude
Of louring weather and long rain,
Or where the sun steers close and mile
On mile is uninhabited heat,
I’ll still love Lalage, my sweet
Chatterer with the charming smile.
(translated by James Michie)
So insulated a view, that nature itself will acknowledge a lover, was proposed by the contemporary love poets Tibullus and Propertius, the heirs of Catullus. Horace rebuked such singlemindedness explicitly elsewhere, and in the “Integer vitae” Ode he seems to be parodying it from within, playing the part of the typical love poet. He assumes a role that he does not really share, and that he can enjoy only vicariously. His “I” functions almost as a third-person pronoun: it is as though he were acting a part on stage, yet also watching with benign skepticism from the wings (“Nor is this speech mine”).
Horace, if anyone, had anticipated Wallace Stevens’s warning that the poet not appear “too exactly himself,” and he knew, too, that the truest poetry is the most feigning. But to say, as Shackleton Bailey does, that in the Odes “Horace is no longer concerned with self-portrayal” is true only in the most literal sense. Is not self-parody itself a form of self-portrayal? But Shackleton Bailey is not greatly interested in such feigning, or such poetry. He leaves the Odes after only four pages, relegating them, we may assume, to the same refrigerator holding Horace’s other eggs.
Horace was obsessed with the transience of man’s life: “Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume.” But he was equally obsessed with the immortality that man—or some men—could create. It is an irony of literary history that we should spend so much time trying to reanimate his life, as Shackleton Bailey does, while ignoring the most vivid of his creations. When he wrote that he would “not altogether die” (non omnis moriar) it was only the Odes that he had in mind; they were to be his “monument more lasting than bronze.” Many of us, of course, are uncomfortable with monuments, and prefer contemplating something more domestic—the bed the great man slept in, for example. A harmless and gratifying pleasure; but it should not be confused with criticism. Shackleton Bailey’s volume, far from being “a reading of all the poetry,” as the book jacket advertises, is gerrymandering of a high order. Any “reading” that disfranchises the Odes must seem eccentric, or peripheral. After all, Horace’s poetry is at the center of his life, and is the only reason we are interested in his life; and at the center of his poetry are the Odes.
What we have, then, is a kind of map of the foothills of Helicon, one that leaves the central peak marked Terra Incognita. Instead, Shackleton Bailey offers two appendixes, one an illuminating essay on Horace and Bentley, the great eighteenth-century scholar. The other is a close discussion of scattered passages where the Latin needs clarification or emendation. The problems that we encounter here are of a different nature than those that confront us in the body of the book, and here we may be unreservedly grateful for Shackleton Bailey’s guidance.
February 3, 1983
The anecdote is preserved in R.M. Ogilvie, Latin and Greek: A History of the Influence of the Classics on English Life from 1600 to 1918 (Shoe String Press, Hamden, Conn., 1964), p. 45. ↩
Cinna the Poet (Humanities Press, 1974), pp. 11 ff. ↩
Henry D. Sedgwick, Horace: A Biography (1947; Russell and Russell, 1967), p. 65. ↩